The Rock and the Sandcastle

This article was published in the On Faith section of the Washington Post in 2010, coincident with the publication of my book, The New Enlightenment.

Five years ago, Bill Byron, the Jesuit former President of Catholic University and pastor of Holy Trinity in Georgetown (I was on the parish council) wrote a book entitled The Power of Principles (Ethics for the New Corporate Culture), where he laid out his analysis of ethical crises in American corporations and where he occasionally quoted me.

Now comes the growing pedophile crisis, and more importantly, the inability of the Church to be honest and take accountability, thus leading to lies and cover-ups.  The Church is claiming “diplomatic immunity” and leading American priests and Bishops, who relished the chance to roast corporate wrong-doers from the pulpit, are now encouraging the Vatican to mount a corporate-style, P.R. campaign.  The Rock has turned into a castle of sand. 

The problem is that the organization and hierarchy of the Catholic Church – and, to be fair, all contemporary religions – long ago compromised its spiritual mission in favor of becoming a large and powerful economic and political machine.  In my new book, The New Enlightenment, I lay out the concept of “Theonomics,” which describes how religions became corporate “salvation monopolies.”  It frames the demand curves (why people created religions and how religions grow), the supply curves (why there are the number of religions that there are and why the religious market behaves the way it does in schism, conflict and evangelism), and the equilibrium and pricing analysis (the way people commit to religion and why some followers become more radical).  The central theorem of this part of my book is timeless wisdom: if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it is a duck.  Translation: religions are ducks, or, more simply, if the behavior of religious organizations conform to (wholly material) economic principles, they are, a priori, not institutions of God, but rather material institutions of man, the Corporate Church. 

And so, fair is fair.  If Church leaders are going to advance a set of “ethical” principles about institutional corruption and lack of ethics in large corporations, let’s see how they apply to the Church. 

The Power of Principles lays out what Bill calls the “old ethical principles.”

First: The Principle of Integrity.  Bill cites Johnson & Johnson’s admission and quick recall of Tylenol as a good example of corporate ethics and protection of public safety at high cost to the company.  The Church has done the opposite: denial, cover-up, and often attacking, rather than candor and protection of the victims.

Second: The Principle of Veracity, i.e., telling the truth in all circumstances, accountability, and transparency.  The public record is clear: the truth was not told and is still not being told (hence, “diplomatic immunity”).  The Church prides itself on lack of transparency and strict obedience to the hierarchy.  The central purpose has changed from spiritual guidance to protection and promotion of the institution – goals often in conflict.  Any student of organizational behavior can tell you that this is the formula for institutional corruption.  The corporate P.R. campaign suggested by the American Bishops would be the poison icing on the cake.

Third: The Principle of Fairness, i.e., treating people equally and giving everyone their due.  Clearly the victims have never been treated fairly at all and their material and spiritual well-being has been quickly sacrificed in defense of the organization.  The Church has it backwards; the temple of God is the person, not the fancy building and cool outfits.

Fourth: The Principle of Human Dignity, what Bill calls the “bedrock” principle of all ethics.  This principle is quickly sacrificed as the Bishops and Cardinals develop remarkably arrogant and imperial stands against their accusers.  Not only is the dignity of the victims sacrificed, but certainly any dignity of the Cardinals as they bring the full economic and political weight, but not any moral weight, of the Church down on their accusers. Forcing victims to drain their personal funds to gain justice from the Church defies any sense of spiritual guidance.  The “bedrock” is sand.

Fifth: The Principle of Participation, “respect for another’s right not to be ignored … or shut out from decision-making within the organization.”  As any Catholic can tell you, the Church is based on top-down authority, obedience, and discipline.  Only the leadership makes decisions and suggestions to the contrary are ignored. It was not always this way.  The humble and self-admittedly fallible St. Peter (the Rock) has been replaced over the centuries by the imperial and “infallible” contemporary bosses (the sand).

Sixth: The Principle of Commitment, i.e., “a committed person can be counted on for dependability, reliability, fidelity, and loyalty.” The “faithful” believe in hierarchy, authority, and obedience.  Unfortunately, the Church, somewhat cynically, perverts these virtues and puts them in the service of defending the material organization, rather than the spiritual well-being of the flock.

Seventh: The Principle of Social Responsibility, “an obligation to look to the interests of the broader community and treat the community as a stakeholder in what the corporation or organization does.” In this case, the organization works to protect itself at all costs, regardless of the impact on the community.

Eighth:  The Principle of the Common Good, “aligning one’s personal interest with community’s well being.” The Church, of course, would argue that individual’s should sacrifice their “self-interest,” (i.e., justice for abuse), in favor of the “community,” (i.e., the Church).  Others might say the Cardinals should sacrifice their self-interest, their perquisites and power, in favor of the community, their followers.  Bill says this is the most difficult principle around which to form a consensus … obviously.

Ninth: The Principle of Subsidiarity, delegation and decentralization, keeping decision-making close to the ground.  In today’s Catholic Church (and other major religions), the trend is in the opposite direction.

Tenth: The Ethical Principle of Love, the sacrifice of one’s time, convenience, ideas, and material goods for the good of others.  This always sounds better from the pulpit when asking the faithful to “give,” than it does when asking the Cardinals to sacrifice their own power and perquisites.  It is always easier for church leadership to “give away” other peoples’ time and resources.

By my count, the Church is 0-for-10. 

There is an old Church saying, “Judge not others lest you be judged.” But, in this case, a summary judgment might be rendered.  The Church has become a large political and economic earthly institution.  The Church has also been (and many religions are today – check your ethics at the door) a military institution.  All earthly institutions become corrupt, especially if they hoard power, operate in secrecy, and aggressively suppress dissent. 

The important point, however, is not to condemn the Church, but to save it. In this age of broader discussion, information, and institutional “sunlight,” the organization will collapse if it is not reformed.  The contradictions are becoming more obvious to more people on a daily basis.  The Pope dreams of a global evangelical renewal … it would collapse on its rotting foundations. In its current state, the Church cannot be reformed from within.  It would require adopting the “old ethical principles.” It would require a large abdication of power and perks that no Cardinal nor the Pope seem remotely interested in entertaining.

Over the past decade, priests have lavishly condemned corporations and corporate leaders from the pulpit as corrupt and have called for huge legal, civil, and political penalties.  They have tried to put many out of business. But, importantly, there are some cases where the pressure has led institutions to reform and return to constructive performance. Church, heal thyself.

Filed under